I’ve been doing a lot of upgrades to my amateur radio setup. The year 2020 drove many social changes. In my case, I dove more deeply into ham radio. I’ve been enjoying my local club’s daily “Coffee and Radio Net,“ working a little HF, and building a contesting “Rover” setup for occasional VHF contesting. But one pursuit that I’ve been enjoying on a small scale is Parks on the Air, or POTA. Some hams love POTA, some hate it, and others are indifferent. POTA is not my lifeblood, but I do enjoy it.
I live close to Colonial National Historic Park, K-0016. So, it’s an easy target to try my hand at POTA. I like the idea of being an “activator,” the station that works from the park itself. I like to hunt for activated parks, too, but usually do so from a park as a “park-to-park” hunter. I activated two distant parks in 2021 and was satisfied by the experience. My first was Monongahela National Forest, K-0632, in conjunction with a trip to support the Mountain Mama Road Bike Challenge. Later, I activated a park in PA while working from state lines for the 3905 Century Club. In 2022, a friend (Randy) suggested working from several parks during a longer stay that’s connected to the Mountain Mama. That’s when I got the idea to pursue a RaDAR award, a quest to activate as many parks in a single calendar day as possible.
We targeted eight parks, at least one of which is a “two-fer” (for a ninth park) since it also is within the massive Monongahela National Forest. We drove at separate times since he owns a cabin in the area and planned some maintenance projects. Driving alone, I decided to attempt an activation of Highland Wildlife Management Area, K-3988. I failed to reach the park due to a small water crossing that was too rocky for my small street car. Nearly anything larger would have made the crossing. Backing out of the double-track road was a little unnerving since the edges of the road were soft. I did some “scout-ahead” walking to find a place that was relatively level, firm, and large enough to perform a five-point turnaround so that I could drive the rest of the way out in first gear. I was glad to have not encountered any oncoming traffic. On the other hand, getting a rescue certainly would have required a ham radio since there is no cellular coverage or residents nearby.
Once out of that detour, I came across the familiar site of the Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Site along Hwy 250 near Staunton, VA. This site is within George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, K-4526. I made a mental note to activate this site during my return trip on Sunday. I wanted to get to Randy’s cabin during daylight hours since the climb to his place is on a steep gravel road with the potential for low-hanging tree limbs. The clearance of my 6m halo and HF caphat are 8’0″ and 8’3″ respectively. It turned out that GROUND clearance was more of an issue than antenna clearance. My ground clearance is around five inches; but that diminishes quickly since the gravel in the tire tracks is packed more than at the center of the road. The rock in this photo is small enough to have driven over on the street, but not on gravel. I hit this rock twice, but found it on the third trip since it was dark and my headlights cast a shadow around it.
I started my RaDAR pursuit the next morning, a Thursday. The outing went relatively well, but not without its problems due to a lack of advance planning on my part. For most, there’s three ways to determine where a park is located: 1) The POTA site itself, which only shows a centralized point for each park and not the park boundaries; 2) Google Maps and other online mapping resources, which may not show accurate park boundaries; and 3) Official national and state park maps which may be a challenge to find online with sufficient resolution to compare to your choice of mapping software. This map photo shows the difference between three resources. POTA rules state that every element of an activator’s station must be within the official boundary of the park. Sometimes, the boundary can be challenging to find during the hunt for a good activation spot. Plan accordingly!
This map shows eight parks, grouped in fours, within easy drive of Randy’s place (yellow star). Of the nine possible activations, I made it to what I thought was six parks on Thursday (plus the two-fer). The lack of cellular coverage in the area as well as a few misidentified boundaries meant that I was not in the park that I had thought I was activating. The two pink hearts show my location for those missed activations. Those parks were Calvin Price State Forest, K-5583, and Slatyfork Wildlife Management Area, K-7627. More about those parks later.
I began my morning with an easy drive to Watoga State Park, K-1827. I asked a park ranger for the highest vehicle-accessible location in the park, which is the parking area for Ann Bailey Tower. The view was good and I even managed to acquire intermittent 5G signals using my WeBoost cellular amplifier. I was able to find an open frequency at 7.266 MHz and spot myself. I made 39 contacts in about 35 minutes. I was prepared to use FT8 as a way to activate the park if the bands were difficult. But I didn’t need it! FT8 contacts, while convenient, are much slower than voice on an active day. I packed-up, as if there’s much of that to do in my mobile setup, and proceeded to the next park.
Looking at my map and working a counter-clockwise circle, I then went for Calvin Price State Park, K-5583. My routing appeared to be on-point as I passed this sign. Other signs said, “Calvin Price State Forest This Side” with an arrow pointing to one side of the road (Watoga State Park was on the other side). The access road became narrow with hills and drop-offs on either side. Backing out if I had come across a fallen tree would have been tons of fun! But I found a clearing at Laurel Run Primitive Campground and got to work. I thought I was in Calvin Price, as did a Virginia friend who spotted me when I told him my GPS position. “According to the map, it looks like you’re in the boundary,” he said. I made 20 contacts on 7.266 MHz.
Side note if you’re a city-boy like me: Always bring your own toilet tissue. I had plenty because I know how people can abuse tissue in public restrooms. This pit toilet’s supply, although well-stocked, had been obliterated by mice. I guess they love it, probably for their nests. While there were three rolls present, none of it was usable since it was riddled with holes.
Anyway, I learned later that the road and its pull-offs legally are not part of the forest. It can be confusing, even on official maps. I visited Watoga’s park office the next morning to ask about the official boundaries and how to access Calvin Price. It turns out that the primitive park is theirs, not Calvin Price’s. DOH! Also, there is no vehicular access to Calvin State Park. Everything is gated for foot traffic only. No worries, though; I can add those 20 contacts to my Watoga log, albeit with a few dupes since some stations were following me from park to park.
The drive to the primitive campground was an interesting adventure, but a huge time-suck since I was limited to about 5-8 mph. Once out of the area, I proceeded to Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, K-1811. This was a small park without a clear high spot that I could see from the car. Had I prepared a bit better, I would have found my way to the watch tower, which appears to be in a clearing and at a relatively high point. But I could not see it without Internet access and was too impatient to find it in the park after my long exit from the campground. I found a place to park and made 25 contacts on 7.266 MHz. I have bookmarked the tower and will work from there in the future. For now, here’s a photo from a scenic spot during my wanderings that day.
Next was Bear Mountain State Park, K-1799. There’s not much to see from the small paved parking area. Looking at online photos from other visitors, it’s clearly a hiker’s paradise! But I didn’t leave the car. According to my log, I drove in, found the small parking area, made 18 contacts on 7.264 MHz, and then left 20 minutes later. From there, I drove to Handley Wildlife Management Area, K-7025, which is a two-fer with Monongahela National Forest, K-0632. That park featured a slow gravel road that descended to a mossy pond. I got out and walked around a bit. I noticed a huge bear print near me as I stood near a tree to transfer some liquids. “Yep! Time to get back into the car.” I was alone and had no bear spray. I ate lunch and then made 45 contacts on 7.265 MHz. I was on a roll!
Here’s a photo of Handley’s mossy pond. I drove toward Slatyfork Wildlife Management Area, K-7027, and took a small detour to see a scenic overlook. The detour was greater than expected. A road was closed at one of my turns. I stopped and reviewed my options. I could go back “the long way” to reroute or continue on my current road, the shorter path, as it turned into a gravel road. Driving on another gravel road wasn’t terrible, but it limited my speed to about 18-25 mph. BTW, nearly all of the gravel roads that I drove were narrow at about 1.5 lanes wide. So, driving faster was unwise since one needs to be alert for oncoming traffic, which is almost always speeding and on the wrong side of the road in turns. It’s hard to say whether the route was faster or slower than taking the longer paved route.
Rain moved in as I continued toward Slatyfork. The end of the day was approaching and I hoped to activate one more park before 0000Z. I got to Slatyfork and could not see signs for the wildlife management area. I pulled up an offline copy of Google Maps. I’ll reshare it here. Not only did POTA’s GPS location for that area seem incorrect, explained later, but Google Maps also shows it in the wrong location. I got on a road that seemed to enter the area (mislabeled in Google) and climbed to a good operating position. I was unable to verify boundaries at the time, but started calling CQ since both 0000Z and a thunderstorm were approaching quickly. I made enough contacts to “activate” the park; but I was not in the park. Thankfully, I was still within the boundary of the massive Monongahela National Forest and submitted a log that reflects that activation, 27 contacts on 7.265 MHz, as well as the 45 contacts that were a two-fer with Handley.
It turns out that Slatyfork Wildlife Management Area is not accessible by vehicle. Given what I could see on a dark and gloomy day, as well as maps, I wasn’t even sure how that park could be activated on foot without trespassing elsewhere to gain access. After returning home, I dug deeper and discovered that there’s a small parking area past what I saw as a very busy industrial area with trucks maneuvering around and blocking visibility and access. I wonder if there’s a foot bridge that crosses over to the wildlife management area or if the Elk River is shallow enough to stone-step across at that point? Regardless, that one is off my list since I’m mobile-only.
That was my RaDAR pursuit on what turned into a rainy Thursday. With a plan to activate seven parks, I wound up with *only* five. I laugh as I type that because I usually work just one park every couple of months. HAHA! Five parks in one day is quite an achievement and good for a “Cheetah” award. Had my research been adequate ahead of time, I would have left Calvin Price and Slatyfork off my list and used the extra time to make it to 2-3 other parks that I knew I could access. I think I’ll do better next time if the bands are as cooperative as they were that day.
I had wondered if my pursuit of a RaDAR award would involve working the minimum ten stations and leaving or if I would clear the list of stations that wanted to work me before I moved-on. I decided to go with working everyone who wanted the contact instead of cutting off everyone after the first ten. Band conditions were great on Thursday and Friday, despite the storms; so, clearing the list was relatively quick, even without the ability of self-spot. I really think I could have earned a higher award if I had planned better. I’ll get it right next time and hope the bands cooperate.
I used Friday to research the park boundaries that I had incorrect and activated three parks: Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, K-1808; Seneca State Forest, K-5589; and Watoga State Park, K-1827 (a repeat but FT8 only today). Cass was an interesting town and has a working steam locomotive train that makes regular runs to neighboring towns. I made 25 contacts on 7.263 MHz from Cass and then drove to Seneca State Forest. I attempted to drive to the highest point in the park, but quickly settled for a lower position after seeing the muddy climb that was required (photo below). I made 21 contacts from Seneca on 7.257 MHz.
Saturday was the Mountain Mama Road Bike Challenge, where I did a lot of parked observation of the riders and served as a communications point. I made about 35 non-POTA FT8 contacts while parked. I activated Highland Wildlife Management Area, K-3988, on my way home on Sunday. I had found another part of the property that I could access with my car. It was in a valley of sorts and surrounded by mountain faces. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get a signal out. Some of the contacts were quite weak, but I eventually made 20 contacts on 7.267 MHz before moving to the Confederate Breastwork Interpretive Site within George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, K-4526. Once there, I could tell that this was a day when the bands were just full of noise. Everyone was commenting about the poor band conditions. Forty meters was noisy with weak signals; 20m was even worse. I managed to squeak out 12 contacts on 7.263 MHz, even with challenging band conditions.
I wonder how 17m would have worked? I had intermittent texting with a friend who didn’t see any spots on 17m. So, I didn’t bother. Forty meters was my workhorse for the bulk of this extended weekend. My Scorpion HF mobile antenna tunes with nearly a perfect match on 40m. I get about 1.6:1 on 17m, so long as I’m not on concrete (rebar), 1.4:1 on 20m and 30m, and about 2.1:1 on 80m. I can work 80m with that match, but prefer to avoid it, especially on the data modes. I can dial-in 80m with some mechanical adjustment to the shunt coil, but then 17m gets detuned a little. I prefer to work 17 over 80 most of the time.
Okay, this has gotten long! I guess that’s what happens when writing about so many activations in one story. Some lessons learned: 1) Do more research and have a precise plan for entry into each park. I thought I had done well by recognizing the need for a permit in Virginia Wildlife Management Areas. Clearly, I needed to look more closely at boundaries; 2) Bring toilet tissue. I did and I’m glad. Enough said there; 3) If I keep this up, I’m going to have to consider a more capable car with more ground clearance. This “road” wasn’t too bad, but rutted just enough to possibly high-center my car. I don’t need a Jeep, but at least an AWD CUV might be nice; 4) I have a list of pros and cons for mobile operating. The need to run AC on hot days and its extra fuel consumption is a definite negative. However, sitting inside a cool car and seeing green-head biting flies on the glass trying to get inside was a great reminder of how wonderful it is to be away from bugs, especially when eating!
Overall, I made 147 contacts on Thursday, 192 if you count the two-fer, 46 contacts on Friday, and 32 contacts on Sunday. All of them were SSB voice contacts. On FT8, I made 26 contacts from two parks, 35 contacts during the bicycling event, and 45 contacts on Sunday by just hitting ENTER or CTRL+N at various points along the drive home, with occasional stops to change grid square info. Not too shabby for my first POTA expedition. Now I just need to get the car cleaned-up for an upcoming European car show in Maggie Valley, NC. I plan to enter as a communications exhibit. I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to turn some heads. 😉
A New Cheetah!